INTERVIEW: Dakota Fanning on “The Secret Life of Bees” and Life Outside of Hollywood

When you think of Dakota Fanning the first thing that might come to mind is a cute, sweet, blonde haired little girl with acting chops beyond her years. Her resume is littered with co-stars that make up some of the biggest names in Hollywood. But she’s not that little girl anymore. She’s actually fourteen years old now and despite the outrageous actions and less than wholesome shenanigans her tween counterparts seem to be notorious for, Fanning has grown into the talented young actor you prayed she would.

She’s co-staring along side Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys in this week’s debut of “The Secret Life of Bees”. Fanning plays the role of Lily Owens, a young woman living in the south during the sixties in height of the civil rights movement. She’s searching for the truth about her dead mother while struggling with the knowledge that she was the one responsible for accidentally killing her. I had a chance to talk with Dakota about movies, family, and even making the cheerleading squad.

EM: Over the course of your career every actor that has worked with you has talked about professional you are and how much of an old soul you are. You have a quality that your peers seem to love so much. What is your secret?

DF: I don’t know! I don’t know, you should ask them I guess. I don’t know, I just really enjoy what I do and I really enjoy getting to work with those people and I have a good time and truly enjoy getting to be in movies.  Maybe if that true love comes through I don’t know!

EM: You tend to have a good amount of emotional scenes in your movies. Being such a young actor, are you able to draw from personal experiences?

DF: Yeah, I think when you’re playing a character I try not to draw on any personal experiences because I’m not that character. I think I’m just feeling what the character’s feeling, it comes naturally I guess.

I try just to be the character in the scene but then when they say cut I’m myself again. Some actors stay in the character the whole time.

EM: So what do you do to turn it off?

DF: That’s just…I don’t know. That’s just the way I’ve always been, since “I Am Sam”. I don’t practice lines out load or anything. And when they say action that’s the first time I’ve ever been the character and when they say cut I’m not the character anymore. I try not to stay that character because you still have to have fun on the set too you know.

EM: I wanted to ask you about the bees. I asked Tristan about the bees and I wanted to get your take on your experience with actually having to handle live bees.

DF: Well I was lucky I got to wear the gloves so when I was working with them I was totally protected all the time so I didn’t get stung or anything. Because I was totally protected I was able to just kind of relax and not have to worry or be tense about the situation I could just really enjoy getting to learn about them and they’re all sitting on you…it’s really amazing!

EM: I was taking with Tristan earlier and he told me that you were a pro about the kissing scene, not nervous at all. I wanted to get your side of the experience.

DF: It was great. I mean Tristan…we knew each other pretty well before we did that scene. It was towards the end of filming so we were really comfortable with each other and he made me feel very comfortable. We were not too nervous about it because we were pretty good friends by that time. He’s a really, really great person.

EM: One of the central plot points of the film is dealing with death. Death of a parent, death of a sibling…how do you think this film will help young people deal with death?

DF: My character she doesn’t deal with her mother’s death very well because she feels very responsible for it and very guilty and has never really been able to forgive herself for that so I hope it teaches people to ultimately forgive your own self and not carry that pain with you. You really can’t live life when you have so much pain going on inside. Especially with my character, she needed the Boatwright sisters to help her realize that it wasn’t her fault and she needed to keep living her life and not let her life end too.

EM: There was a great deal of spirituality in the film like the scene with statue of Mary. Did you draw on your own spirituality during those scenes?

DF: I think the spirituality of this movie I think everybody can kind of relate to no matter what religion you may be so that was a really special part of the film. I didn’t know what to expect seeing the Mary statue for the first time because they talk about it so much in the book and so much in the script and when you see her for the first time it wasn’t at all what I expected actually. I didn’t know what to expect so when I saw it for the first time I kind of was like Lily when she saw Mary for the first time. I don’t know if there’s anything in my life that I drew from for those scenes but my character Lily, I don’t know if she every really had a lot of religion in her life before. She probably went to church or something but this is her first time really being spiritual.

EM: How did you prepare to portray Lily Owens, a poor young girl from the south?

Well I’m from the south. I’m from Georgia.

So the accent was easy for you?

DF: Yeah, yeah, very easy. My whole family lives in the south and that’s where I’m from. I was born there so that part was very easy for me. But my grandmother kind of grew up during this time in the south and she grew up on a dairy farm not a peach farm (Lily Owens lives on a peach farm) so I was able to draw from her I guess. It’s when you’re there, I don’t know how to explain it. Once you’re there and you’re on the set and you’re in period clothing you can’t help but feel like you’re in that time period.

EM: Other than pulling from your own family like your grandmother, is there materials or research that really spoke to you about the period? Because it takes place in the sixties during the height of the civil rights movement making it a pretty heavy time in our country’s history.

DF: Gina, the director, gave…I think she gave everybody different things based on what their character would have felt or what they were going through in the movie so I don’t think we all got the same thing. I got a documentary called “Four Little Girls”. I loved it so much I watched it a bunch of times. I also got a documentary about what goes on inside a hive (bee hive), about bees. So those were kind of my two movies and then she gave us music from the sixties and I think that’s all she gave me. Also when we got there she took Jennifer (Hudson) and I to a drug store which she kind of set up a mock discrimination of what it would have been like if me and Jennifer had actually gone into a drug store during that time. That kind of helped us both get into that time period because Jennifer wasn’t around in 1964 and neither was I and she’s from Chicago so she never really experienced the south.

EM: What was your experience with the novel? Did you have a chance to read it before filming?

DF: Yeah, I read it a while ago when I was first attached to doing the movie. That was almost four years ago. That was the first time I read it then I read it this summer too after I was done filming.

EM: Ok so we’re gonna change gears here a little. You’ve been acting for a while now and being such a focused and professional actor doesn’t leave much time to be a kid. What do you do when you’re not working? What’s your life like?

DF: I go to school, I’m a cheerleader…I have a football game on Friday when I get home. So I have all that. I have a horse; I ride my horse every weekend…

EM: What kind of horse?

DF: A Palomino.

EM: Oh cool.

DF: Yeah, and just being with friends and family. That’s the most important. Family is so important to me so I think it’s important to spend as much time with them as you can.

EM: So what’s high school like when you’ve been nominated for awards and stared along side the biggest names in Hollywood?

DF: Last year was my first year, I was in ninth grade and it really was so easy. I’m in tenth grade this year and it’s just been great. I feel like I’ve been there my whole life.

EM: What do you think of Amy Poehler’s impression of you on Saturday Night Live?

DF: I’ve never seen it actually. But it’s Saturday Night Live, you have to be able to laugh at yourself I think. I heard it’s really funny but I’ve never seen it.

Interview by Tiffany N. D’Emidio